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Madame Death! Madame Death!

 

When Oscar Wilde said that “fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months,” he was being nice. His view might seem harsh but it is really the simple fact that fashion is less about beauty and more about novelty. The truth, though, is that fashion’s claim to newness is actually pretty bogus. In a world where there is nothing new under the sun, fashion has to struggle really hard to sustain the fiction that it produces legitimately new things. It does this by recycling old ideas and depending on the bad memory of its disciples. What this tells us is that fashion maybe be ugly in the sense that it is not the standard of beauty, but it is also never innocent. It has its dark side.

If Oscar Wilde understood fashion as a place where new things are always trying to find expression, the Italian poet, Giacomo Leopardi, could not help but see death as the meaning of fashion. This week, I’m sharing with you an unusual piece written by the late 18th century poet about an imaginary conversation between fashion and Madame Death. Fashion is a young woman who appears to be an air head and Madame death is portrayed as a slow, deaf, and tired old woman. Yes they seem hopelessly different, but Fashion is bent on proving that they have more in common than meets the eye. Will she be able to prove that being caught up in the grasp of fashion is a way of dying?  Find out by reading Leopardi’s odd and funny piece, “Dialogue Between Fashion and Death.”

Fashion.  Madam Death, Madam Death!

Death.  Wait till your hour comes, and I’ll come to you without your calling me.

Fashion.  Oh come! By the love you cherish for the seven cardinal sins, stop a moment and look at me!

Death.  I am looking at you.

Fashion.  And do you mean to say you don’t know me?

Death.  You should know that my sight is bad, and that I can’t use spectacles, since the English now make none that suit me; and if they did, I have no nose to stick them on.

Fashion.  Why, I am Fashion, your own sister.

Death.  My sister!

Fashion.  Yeah, don’t you remember that we are both the children of Frailty?

Death.  What have I to do with remembering — I, who am the sworn enemy of memory?

Fashion.  But I remember the circumstance well; and I also know that both of us are alike employed continually in the destruction and change of all things here below, although you take one way of doing so, and I another.

Death.  Unless you are talking to yourself, or with some person you have there inside you, I beg you will raise your voice a little and articulate your words better, for if you go on muttering to me between your teeth like that with that voice like a spider’s, I’ll never hear you, since, as you know, my hearing is as bad as my sight.

Fashion Well, although it is not good manners to speak plainly, and though in France nobody speaks so as to be heard, yet, since we are sisters, and need not stand on ceremony with each other, I’ll speak as you wish. I say, then, that the tendency and operation common to us both is to be continually renewing the world. But whereas you have from the beginning aimed your efforts directly against the bodily constitutions and the lives of men, I am content to limit my operations to such things as their beards, their hair, their clothing, their furniture, their dwellings, and the like. Nevertheless, it is a fact that I have not failed at times to play men certain tricks not altogether unworthy to be compared 80to your own work; as, for example, boring men’s ears, or lips, or noses, and lacerating them with trinkets which I place therein; or scorching their bodies with hot irons, which I persuade them to apply to their persons by way of improving their beauty. Then again, I sometimes squeeze the heads of their children with ligatures and other appliances, rendering it obligatory that all the inhabitants of a country should have heads of the same shape, as I have ere now accomplished in America and Asia. I also cripple mankind with shoes too small for their feet, and stifle their respiration, and make their eyes nearly start out of their heads with tightly laced corsets, and many more follies of this kind. In short, I contrive to persuade the more ambitious of mortals daily to endure countless inconveniences, sometimes torture and mutilation, aye, and even death itself, for the love they bear toward me. I say nothing of the headaches, and colds, and catarrhs, and fevers of alls sorts, quotidian, tertian, and quartan, which men contract through their worship of me, inasmuch as they are willing to shiver with cold or stifle with heat at my command, adopting the most preposterous kinds of clothing to please me, and perpetrating a thousand follies in my name, regardless of the consequences to themselves.

Death By my faith, I begin to believe that your are my sister after all. Nay, it is as sure as Death, and you have no need to produce the birth certificate of the parish priest in order to prove it. But standing still exhausts me, so if you’ve no objection, I wish you would run on alongside of me; but see you don’t break down, for I run at a great pace. As we run, you can tell me what it is you want of me; and even if you would rather not keep me company, still, in consideration of your relationship to me, I promise you that when I 81die I’ll leave you all my effects and residuary estate, and much good may it do you.

Death.  All right, then; and since you are my own mother’s child, I hope it will suit you to assist me in my business.

Fashion.  I’ve already told you that I have heretofore done so more than you would suppose. First of all, though it is my nature forever to annul and upset all other customs and usages, I have never and nowhere done anything calculated to put an end to the custom of dying; and thus, as you see, it has prevailed universally from the beginning of time till now.

Death.  A precious marvel, forsooth, that you have abstained from doing that which it was not in your power to do!

Fashion.  Not in my power! It is very evident that you have no idea of the power of Fashion.

Death.  Well, well, it’ll be time enough to discuss this point when the custom of dying comes to an end. But in the meantime I want you, as a good and affectionate sister, to help me to prevent such a result, and to attain its very opposite, even more effectually and more expeditiously than I have yet done.

 

For more fun little write-ups from Giacomo Leopardi, click HERE.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

One Response to “Madame Death! Madame Death!” Subscribe

  1. Tanker Driver 2012/10/01 at 22:43 #

    Oscar knew two things or one about the wild. I just hope he war clothes too.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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